Sunday, 20 March 2016

The Professional

When an under funded amateur produces better results than professionals,
it calls into question the idea of where we find excellence.
I recently watched an interesting film on the Dakar Rally. In this film a skilled amateur takes on the most challenging endurance race in the world. Most competitors in this race are corporately funded professionals with teams of mechanics and loads of extra equipment, all designed to mitigate failure and ensure the success of the brand they represent. By contrast this guy struggled to find enough money to go, found a second hand motorcycle and proceeded to complete a race that many of those funded, enabled professionals did not. It got me thinking about where we find human excellence. I suspect it isn't behind a professional pay-cheque.

The Blanchard quote in the picture above notes the difference between curiosity driven experience and results driven experience.  Curiosity might get you started, but at some point you're probably going to want to judge your skills by harsher criteria than merely whether or not you feel like doing it.  Competition does this, but it does it in a very binary fashion producing as many winners as it does losers, especially in sports.

The professional athletes who perform in that binary competitive environment are often trotted out as examples of excellence.  When someone has a certain inclination everyone else gets quite excited by their talent, more so if it appears easy for them.  When a particularly coordinated young person shows an affinity for a sport they tend to get an awful lot of support even though the vast majority of them will never earn a penny playing it.

The few who break into the moneyed world of professional athletics tend to be so specialized, supported and hyped that their being there is more a matter of investment than it is of skill.  Moneyball does a good job of revealing this hype.  A draft pick with buzz can leverage ridiculous sums of money even though their fundamental skills (as show in statistics) are suspect.  Like most human activities, it's what others think about you rather than what you are that matters.

I often wonder where professional athletes fell in society at any other time in history.  Within the confines of a carefully constructed game that they are ridiculously compensated for they are highly motivated and virtually infallible, but in more open ended, rigorous situations without the support and confined success criteria where would they be?

Games themselves are crafted to reduce chance and focus on very specific skills.  The less chance the better, really. Professional athletes are the people with natural reflexes and strength who are best able to thrive in that very restricted and focused environment.  We admire their commitment, but it's a very blinkered existence that they live.

You hang on, no matter what, even when you shouldn't
Watching something like the Dakar Rally puts the limited nature of most professional sports into context.  It is typical for more than half the competitors not to finish the race at all.  An average of two people die in the event each time it is run.  Attempting to do this race, even with full sponsorship, the latest equipment and years of training, is dangerous.  Trying to complete the race on a shoestring budget, alone, with second hand parts seems mad, but Dream Racer points to an aspect of human excellence we really don't see in professional athletes.

At the end of the film the rider is in tears.  He is exhausted, battered and elated.  He has finished this gruelling race, but he has done something that dozens of fully supported professionals could not.  I find something like this a much better example of human potential than a win by a group of wickedly overpaid specialists versus another group of wickedly overpaid, myopic specialists.

Our societal love of professional athletes has wormed its way into the classroom as well.  We limit learning to clearly defined criteria and limit chance whenever possible.  We praise those students who find school easy whether it be through socio-economic advantage, family circumstance or natural ability.  With BYOD we encourage sponsorship of advantaged students and then praise their superiority over others (attend any graduation ceremony and enjoy the litany of awards all going to the same students).  We don't value effort or imagination over defined results and we glorify instruction that emphasizes clarity and limited outcomes over non-linear, discovery based, often unexpected learning.  Bafflingly, we don't rate learning itself, we rate static achievement.  The student who learns more and improves the most is inferior to the student who already knew the material and put in half an effort but scored higher on tests.

The professional student, like the professional athlete, is a myopic specialist who excels at a very limited set of skills.  Beyond the walls of a classroom those good-student habits won't get them far in a world that demands resiliency, creativity and agility.  The most successful student is what we are trying to produce, and that student, like a professional athlete, trains exclusively in a specific set of skills in order to hit restricted, carefully defined outcomes.

Maybe that's why watching something like Dream Racer resonated with me.  It was a man battling real-world limitations to enter a challenging competition that offers failure as the likely outcome.  When he achieves success in spite of everything against him, I got teary too.  Too bad we can't offer failure as a likely option any more in the classroom.  It would make success that much sweeter and produce students who are genuinely proud of their accomplishments.